Bright Line Watch Survey Report: Wave 2

From May 11–20, 2017, Bright Line Watch conducted its second expert survey of political sci­en­tists assessing the state of democracy in the United States. BLW’s first survey (Wave 1) was conducted at the outset of the Trump admin­is­tra­tion in February 2017. This report presents results from the second survey (Wave 2), which was completed soon after the first 100 days of the Trump pres­i­den­cy. It evaluates how experts view the United States in com­par­i­son to Wave 1 and to prior periods in U.S. history.

In this wave, we invited 9,539 political science faculty at 511 U.S. insti­tu­tions to par­tic­i­pate. By Saturday morning, May 20, we received 1,126 qualified responses (a response rate of 12 percent). This report is based on those data, which are available here.

The Wave 2 survey had two goals. The first was to assess how our respon­dents rate the current state of democracy in the United States. To do that, we asked them to evaluate the United States using a battery of twenty-nine state­ments of demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples. The second purpose was to evaluate the per­for­mance of American democracy in his­tor­i­cal context, which we accom­plish by (a) comparing responses between our Wave 1 and Wave 2 surveys and (b) asking respon­dents in Wave 2 to rate the overall quality of U.S. democracy at different times from 1800 to the present.

The twenty-nine statements of democratic principles are as follows:

1.  Elections are conducted, ballots counted, and winners deter­mined without pervasive fraud or manipulation

2.  All adult citizens have equal oppor­tu­ni­ty to vote

3.  Voter par­tic­i­pa­tion in elections is generally high

4.  Elections are free from foreign influence

5.  The geo­graph­ic bound­aries of electoral districts do not sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly advantage any par­tic­u­lar political party

6.  All votes have equal impact on election outcomes

7.  Parties and can­di­dates are not barred due to their political beliefs and ideologies

8.  All adult citizens enjoy the same legal and political rights

9.  Government does not interfere with jour­nal­ists or news organizations

10.  Government effec­tive­ly prevents private actors from engaging in polit­i­cal­ly-motivated violence or intimidation

11.  Government protects indi­vid­u­als’ right to engage in unpopular speech or expression

12.  Government protects indi­vid­u­als’ right to engage in peaceful protest

13.  Government officials are legally sanc­tioned for misconduct

14.  Government officials do not use public office for private gain

15.  Government agencies are not used to monitor, attack, or punish political opponents

16.  Government leaders recognize the validity of bureau­crat­ic or sci­en­tif­ic consensus about matters of public policy

17.  Even when there are dis­agree­ments about ideology or policy, political leaders generally share a common under­stand­ing of relevant facts

18.  Executive authority cannot be expanded beyond con­sti­tu­tion­al limits

19.  The leg­is­la­ture is able to effec­tive­ly limit executive power

20.  The judiciary is able to effec­tive­ly limit executive power

21.  The elected branches respect judicial independence

22.  In the elected branches, majori­ties act with restraint and reciprocity

23.  Elected officials seek com­pro­mise with political opponents

24.  Political com­pe­ti­tion occurs without criticism of opponents’ loyalty or patriotism

25.  Information about the sources of campaign funding is available to the public

26.  Public policy is not deter­mined by large campaign con­tri­bu­tions

27.  Citizens can make their opinions heard in open debate about policies that are under consideration

28.  Citizens have access to infor­ma­tion about can­di­dates that is relevant to how they would govern

29.  Law enforce­ment inves­ti­ga­tions of public officials or their asso­ciates are free from political influence or interference

The first battery of questions asked, “How well do the following state­ments describe the United States as of today?” Each respon­dent was then asked to rate a randomly selected subset of fifteen state­ments drawn from the list above using the following response options for each statement:

  • The U.S. does not meet this standard

  • The U.S. partly meets this standard

  • The U.S. mostly meets this standard

  • The U.S. fully meets this standard

  • Not sure

(Note: The list of state­ments of demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples has grown from Wave 1, which included nineteen state­ments. Appendix A below describes changes from the Wave 1 survey to Wave 2.)

Respondents were then asked to evaluate the overall per­for­mance of U.S. democracy today on a 0–100 scale. After providing a rating, they were then asked to provide a similar rating at nine his­tor­i­cal points: 1800, 1850, 1900, 1950, 1975, 1985, 1995, 2005, and 2015. 

How is U.S. democracy doing?

According to our experts, the per­for­mance of U.S. democracy varies widely across different types of demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples. Rights of expres­sion are perceived as well-protected, but ratings of elections and political account­abil­i­ty are mixed and standards of political equality and civility are over­whelm­ing­ly rated as not being met. 

The figure below shows the dis­tri­b­u­tion of responses on the demo­c­ra­t­ic per­for­mance battery for each of the state­ments. The state­ments are ordered ver­ti­cal­ly according to the combined share of responses indi­cat­ing that the United States fully or mostly meets the standard (as opposed to partly or not at all or not sure).  (Summary sta­tis­tics in tabular form can be viewed here.)

W2 US BLW Wave 2 statements response distributions - slidebar

As the figure illus­trates, there is a sharp break in per­for­mance assess­ments between state­ments for which over half of our respon­dents rated the United States as “mostly” or “fully” meeting the standard and state­ments for which over half said the United States “does not meet” or only “partly meets” the standard. We use this fifty percent cutoff to dis­tin­guish strong from weak performance.

To facil­i­tate overall assess­ment of the results for our extensive list of demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples, we sort the survey state­ments into groups reflect­ing broader themes and present the average per­cent­age of respon­dents who think the U.S. mostly or fully meets the standard in question for each.

  • Freedom of expression (average: 72%)

  • Quality of elections (average: 46%)

  • Accountability (average: 46%)

  • Political equality (average: 28%)

  • Norms of civility (average: 14%)

(The full set of state­ments cor­re­spond­ing to each theme is listed in Appendix B below along with the per­cent­age of “Mostly meets standard” and “Fully meets standard” responses for each.)

As these values indicate, respon­dents generally view the U.S. as per­form­ing well on demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples related to freedom of expres­sion. However, views are more mixed on prin­ci­ples related to political and legal account­abil­i­ty. The judiciary’s inde­pen­dence (58%) and check on executive power (76%) are rated highly, but other checks on mis­con­duct and the exercise of executive power receive lower ratings (29%-45%). Similarly, most experts believe U.S. elections are conducted without fraud (83%) or inter­fer­ence in the parties who can par­tic­i­pate (82%), but ratings of other aspects of elections related to foreign influence (35%), campaign funding (34%), par­tic­i­pa­tion (10%), and bound­aries of electoral districts (7%) are much lower. Finally, ratings are con­sis­tent­ly dismal for measures of political, legal, and electoral equality (average: 28%) and respect for norms of political civility and consensus about the validity of infor­ma­tion on politics and policy (average: 14%). 

What changes do we see over time?

Our Wave 2 survey provides per­spec­tive on changes over time in expert assess­ments of democracy at three levels of gran­u­lar­i­ty — changes while our survey was being admin­is­tered, changes from Wave 1 to Wave 2, and changes across broader eras of U.S. history. Our initial intention was to focus on the latter two com­par­isons, but the dramatic events of the week of May 15–20, 2017 also allow us to evaluate how responses changed while our survey was in the field.

Changes during the survey week

In the six days after we first issued survey invi­ta­tions on Thursday, May 11, the political news cycle was dominated by President Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey on May 9 and sub­se­quent rev­e­la­tions about the moti­va­tions for Comey’s dismissal. However, the news cycle took a dramatic turn on the evening of Wednesday, May 17, when Justice Department announced that Robert Mueller had been appointed as a special counsel to inves­ti­gate Russian inter­fer­ence into the 2016 election and whether it included collusion with Trump campaign officials. He was also given authority to consider any potential efforts to obstruct the investigation. 

Mueller’s appoint­ment as special counsel has impli­ca­tions for many of the demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples reflected in our state­ments. For this reason, we examined whether the patterns of responses to any of our questions differed sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly between the period before and after the Mueller appoint­ment. Approximately seven in 10 respon­dents (783, or 70%) began answering the survey before 6 PM on May 17; the rest (343, or 30%) began afterward. On most state­ments, dif­fer­ences between early and late responses were minor. On two state­ments, however, the per­cent­ages who said the U.S. “mostly” or “fully” meets the standard in question shifted by more than ten per­cent­age points (both dif­fer­ences are sta­tis­ti­cal­ly significant): 

  • Executive authority cannot be expanded beyond constitutional limits” increased from 35% to 48%.

  • Law enforcement investigations of public officials or their associates are free from political influence or interference” increased from 32% to 45%.

These shifts suggest that our respon­dents were reassured by Mueller’s appointment.

Changes from February 2017 to May 2017

We also evaluate shifts in our expert respon­dents’ assess­ments between our Wave 1 survey, which was conducted in February 2017, and our Wave 2 survey. To do so, we compare responses on the nineteen state­ments that were asked in both waves.

We observe a sig­nif­i­cant decrease in the pro­por­tion of respon­dents who think the U.S. “mostly” or “fully” meets the standard in question from Wave 1 to Wave 2 for five demo­c­ra­t­ic principles:

  • Constitutional limits on executive (-12%)

  • Legislative check on the executive (-11%)

  • Equal legal and political rights (-9%)

  • Foreign influence on elections (-8%)

  • Judicial independence (-6%)

W2 wave1-wave2-horizontal-bar

(A com­par­i­son of ratings for all 19 items in Waves 1 and 2 is provided in Appendix C below.)

This dete­ri­o­ra­tion was likely driven by events in the news. From the first to the second waves of our surveys, the Russian influence scandal attracted increas­ing attention, which may have con­tributed to declining expert ratings of con­sti­tu­tion­al limits on, and leg­isla­tive control over, the executive, as well as foreign electoral influence. (Our analysis above suggests the Mueller appoint­ment mitigated the perceived dete­ri­o­ra­tion of con­sti­tu­tion­al limits on the executive.) Finally, the observed dete­ri­o­ra­tion in per­cep­tions of judicial inde­pen­dence and equal legal/political rights may reflect the dis­si­pa­tion of attention to actions by courts blocking the Trump administration’s executive order banning travel from majority-Muslim countries, which was  intense at the time of Wave 1. 

Changes over time across eras of US history

The second main battery of questions on the Wave 2 survey asked respon­dents to rate the overall quality of U.S. democracy on a 0–100 scale in 1800, 1850, 1900, 1950, 1975, 1985, 1995, 2005, 2015, and 2017. The years we selected cor­re­spond­ed to distinct eras in American history. For instance, the first four cover the time period shortly after the founding (1800), the middle of the 19th century but before the Civil War (1850), the era of pro­gres­sive reforms but also Jim Crow in the South (1900), and the mid-20th century period after the New Deal but before the main gains of civil rights movement (1950). As we moved toward the present day, we expected our respon­dents’ knowledge of U.S. democracy and ability to discern dif­fer­ences in quality would grow. Accordingly, we asked for assess­ments across narrower time gaps (1975, 1985, 1995, and 2005). Finally, we asked for assess­ments in 2015 and 2017 to measure any perceived shift in demo­c­ra­t­ic quality under the Trump administration.

The results are reported in Appendix D, and plotted in the figure below:

W2 US 1800 to 2017 democracy rating averages - scatter

(95% con­fi­dence intervals are similar in height to the points in the graph and are thus omitted.)

We observe steady and dramatic increases in the assess­ments of the quality of U.S. democracy from the founding era up to the late 20th century. The increase from 1800–1850 coincides with expansion of suffrage beyond property holders to most of the white male pop­u­la­tion. The period from 1850–1900 saw the Civil War, the abolition of slavery, the Civil Service Act, and the beginning of the Progressive Era reforms, but also the aban­don­ment of Reconstruction and the estab­lish­ment of Jim Crow in the South (1850–1900). The period from 1900–1950 saw the rat­i­fi­ca­tion of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution guar­an­tee­ing women’s voting rights as well as the vast expansion of the federal welfare state under Roosevelt’s New Deal and the first achieve­ments of the civil rights movement. Our respon­dents rated U.S. democracy as improving steadily during this period, sur­pass­ing a mean score of 50 on the 100-point scale for the first time.  

The time lapses in our survey question shortened at this point. Between 1950 to 1975, the country expe­ri­enced the high water mark of the civil rights movement, including landmark civil rights leg­is­la­tion in 1957 and 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The average rating for US democracy rose more steeply during this 25-year span than it did on average during the prior 50-year intervals.

Subsequently, the assess­ments from our experts plateau over the next four decades, remaining roughly stable over ten-year intervals from 1975–2015. During this period, there is no clear dif­fer­ence in overall eval­u­a­tions of U.S. democracy across admin­is­tra­tions with dia­met­ri­cal­ly different governing ide­olo­gies, including the two-term pres­i­den­cies of Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. In 2017, however, we observe a decline in the final rating after the beginning of the Trump administration.

The Trump slump is worth examining more closely. As sum­ma­rized in the chart below, fully three-quarters of the experts surveyed reg­is­tered a decline in the quality of U.S. democracy between 2015 and 2017. About a quarter regarded this as minor (between 1 and 5 points on the 100-point scale), another quarter gauged it as moderate (6 to 10 points), and 27% estimated it as larger than 10 points. By contrast, 21% perceived no change across the most recent two years and only 4% rate U.S. democracy as stronger in 2017 than in 2015.

W2 2015 to 2017 democracy rating differences - bar chart

Clearly, our expert sample of political sci­en­tists views the quality of US democracy more neg­a­tive­ly in May 2017 than it did in the past. 


Findings from the Wave 2 Bright Line Watch survey indicate that con­fi­dence in parts of the basic framework of liberal democracy in the U.S. remain solid, but sig­nif­i­cant concerns exist and are growing in numerous areas.

Respondent assess­ments of the U.S. vary widely across different dimen­sions of democracy. Evaluations of the rights that guarantee freedom of expres­sion, including of unpopular ideas, are con­sis­tent­ly positive. However, assess­ments of the quality of elections and mech­a­nisms of account­abil­i­ty are mixed; some specific prin­ci­ples are widely regarded as met whereas others are seen as deficient. For example, there is wide­spread con­fi­dence that the minimum con­di­tions for demo­c­ra­t­ic elections, such as the absence of fraud, are fulfilled but other elements of electoral quality, including unbiased electoral districts, high par­tic­i­pa­tion rates, and trans­par­ent dis­clo­sure of campaign funding, are held to be lacking. 

The variation in in our respon­dents’ judgments of mech­a­nisms of account­abil­i­ty is not quite so wide but still remains uneven. The U.S. judiciary is held in high regard for its inde­pen­dence and its ability to exercise a check on executive authority, but other checks on gov­ern­ment power and forms of account­abil­i­ty command far less esteem. Most respon­dents are skeptical about the effec­tive­ness of Congress as a check on the executive, whether public officials can be con­strained from abusing their authority, and whether inves­ti­ga­tion and enforce­ment mech­a­nisms are uncom­pro­mised by political considerations. 

Finally, our respon­dents rate the United States as deficient on metrics of political equality, including voting, legal, and political rights, as well as on equality of influence both at the ballot box and in shaping public policy. Assessments of respect for the behav­ioral norms that sustain civil discourse, including decency toward political opponents, will­ing­ness to com­pro­mise, and even to seek common under­stand­ings on basic facts, are lower still. 

Over time, our expert respon­dents perceive the quality of U.S. democracy as increas­ing steadily for the first two centuries after inde­pen­dence, with the most dramatic gains con­cen­trat­ed in the decades imme­di­ate­ly following World War II. Those gains were preserved through the Cold War era and into the 21st century despite the turmoil following the 9/11 attacks and the war on terror. 

Between 2015 and the present, however, our respon­dents perceive a sharp decline in the quality of democracy, the first for any time interval we examined. We will continue to explore the sources and per­sis­tence of this shift in future surveys, but the evidence from February to May points toward inten­si­fy­ing concerns about whether con­sti­tu­tion­al limits on executive authority can be enforced, whether Congress is willing or able to enforce those limits, and whether legal and political rights will be equally guar­an­teed to all Americans. We are not shocked by our results given the ongoing political battles over these core demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples, but their famil­iar­i­ty in no way limits their urgency. We will continue to monitor the quality of democracy in the United States in future reports.


Appendix A: Changes to the survey

Bright Line Watch conducted its first expert survey on U.S. democracy in February 2017 (Wave 1). We received comments and feedback on the instru­ment from dozens of political science faculty who took the survey as well as from jour­nal­ists and other scholars who took an interest in the project. We incor­po­rat­ed many of those sug­ges­tions in designing the Wave 2 instrument. 

Our intention is to repeat variants of the survey quarterly, main­tain­ing the core battery of state­ments eval­u­at­ing demo­c­ra­t­ic per­for­mance and rotating addi­tion­al questions into the mix to explore his­tor­i­cal and com­par­a­tive cases. For the core battery, we will pri­or­i­tize stability for purposes of com­par­isons over time, but we also aim to establish the best possible instrument. 

The most sig­nif­i­cant change to the study was the expansion of the list of state­ments included in the Wave 2 survey from 19 to 29. Readers can view the full lists of state­ments from Wave 1 and Wave 2 here. The list of newly added state­ments is as follows:

  • Voter par­tic­i­pa­tion in elections is generally high
  • The geo­graph­ic bound­aries of electoral districts do not sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly advantage any par­tic­u­lar political party
  • Government protects indi­vid­u­als’ right to engage in peaceful protest
  • Information about the sources of campaign funding is available to the public
  • Public policy is not deter­mined by large campaign contributions
  • Citizens can make their opinions heard in open debate about policies that are under consideration
  • Citizens have access to infor­ma­tion about can­di­dates that is relevant to how they would govern
  • Law enforce­ment inves­ti­ga­tions of public officials or their asso­ciates are free from political influence or interference
  • Even when there are dis­agree­ments about ideology or policy, political leaders generally share a common under­stand­ing of relevant facts
  • Elected officials seek com­pro­mise with political opponents

In Wave 1, we asked respon­dents to evaluate all 19 of the state­ments twice — first in a battery asking how important each principle is to democracy in general and then again in battery asking about the per­for­mance of U.S. democracy. With the expanded list of state­ments in Wave 2, we decided to reduce the burden on respon­dents by request­ing an eval­u­a­tion of a randomly selected subset of 15 of the 29 state­ments. This change lightened the load on respon­dents con­sid­er­ably, although it reduced the number of responses we received eval­u­at­ing any given statement (which ranged from 531 to 612).

The first eight of the new state­ments listed above were intended to expand the range of demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples that our survey evaluates. The last two state­ments have a different intent. We regard them as improve­ments over two Wave 1 state­ments that we concluded were awkward and unclear:

  • Government leaders recognize the validity of bureau­crat­ic or sci­en­tif­ic consensus about matters of public policy
  • In the elected branches, majori­ties act with restraint and reciprocity

On Wave 2, we included all four state­ments in order to confirm that the proposed replace­ments tap into related ideas as the originals. The responses for each pairing in Wave 2 suggests they do. For instance, the 84% of respon­dents for the original consensus question indicated the U.S. “does not” or only “partly meets” the standard versus 90% for the new common under­stand­ing question (cor­re­la­tion = 0.56 among those who answered both questions). Similarly, 85% of respon­dents said the U.S. “does not” or only “partly meets” the standard for the original majority restraint question versus 89% for the new com­pro­mise question (cor­re­la­tion = 0.43).

We therefore plan to drop the two original state­ments in future waves of the survey.


Appendix B: Statements by theme

Statement U.S. mostly+fully
meets standard
Protest tolerated 80%
Free speech 80%
Opinions heard on policy 75%
No political violence 68%
No inter­fer­ence with press 63%
Agencies do not punish 63%
Average 72%
Judicial check 76%
Judicial inde­pen­dence 58%
Sanctions for misconduct 45%
Legislative check 41%
Constitutional limits on executive 39%
Investigations not compromised 36%
Public office for private gain 29%
Average 46%
Fraud-free elections 83%
All parties allowed 82%
Candidates disclose information 68%
No foreign influence 35%
Campaign funds transparent 34%
Participation high 10%
Districts not biased 7%
Average 46%
Equal oppor­tu­ni­ty to vote 35%
Equal legal and political rights 34%
Votes have equal impact 24%
Contributions do not determine policy 17%
Average 28%
Patriotism not attacked 19%
Policy consensus recognized 15%
Restraint and reciprocity 15%
Compromise sought 11%
Common under­stand­ing of facts 10%
Average 14%


Appendix C: Changes in ratings of democratic performance (Waves 1/2)

Statement W1: Mostly + fully W2: Mostly + fully W2-W1
Constitution limits executive 51% 39% -12%*
Legislature can limit executive 52% 41% -11%*
Equal legal/political rights 43% 34% -9%*
No foreign influence 42% 35% -8%*
Judicial inde­pen­dence 65% 58% -6%*
Judiciary can limit executive 80% 76% -4%
Fraud-free elections 86% 83% -3%
No inter­fer­ence with press 65% 63% -2%
Equal voting rights 37% 35% -2%
Free speech 81% 80% -1%
Restraint/reciprocity 15% 15% -1%
All parties allowed 83% 82% -1%
Sanctions for misconduct 45% 45% -1%
Policy consensus recognized 15% 15% 0%
Votes have equal impact 24% 24% 0%
No political violence 68% 68% 0%
No private gains from office 28% 29% +1%
Patriotism not questioned 17% 19% +2%
Agencies do not punish 60% 63% +2%
Protest tolerated 80%
Opinions heard on policy 75%
Candidates disclose information 68%
Investigations not compromised 36%
Campaign funds transparent 34%
Contributions not determine policy 17%
Compromise sought 11%
Participation high 10%
Common under­stand­ing of facts 10%
Districts not biased 7%

* p<.05


Appendix D: Assessments of U.S. Democracy

Year Rating
1800 30.78
1850 35.10
1900 46.18
1950 58.67
1975 75.31
1985 76.90
1995 78.16
2005 75.27
2015 75.78
2017 67.11